Are your research aims the right aims?
Defining the aims of a research project, whether it be for a Masters or PhD thesis, or even a major grant application, requires considerable thought. It is more difficult than it looks for several distinct reasons.
First, one must define a general research area in which to work. The hardest part about research is finding the right problem to work on. The problem needs to be hard enough and interesting enough for others to recognise the value of your contributions. Yet if it is too hard, it would not be possible to make a sufficiently worthwhile contribution in a reasonable amount of time. Several common strategies are:
- The entrepreneurial approach. Identify a problem that has not been considered yet by your peers but which you believe will attract attention once people become aware of it. Looking backwards, it is easy to identify areas of work which were (or are) a hot topic and for which the barrier to entry was not great; it was the right problem at the right time to consider.
- The arbitrage approach. Different disciplines can have different approaches for tackling similar problems; it is not uncommon for one discipline to be completely unaware of related advances in another discipline. Look for how your expertise can be applied outside your discipline in a novel way. (Breakthroughs in an area often come about by the introduction of ideas originally foreign to that area.)
- The team approach. Find a world-class team of experts working on a grand challenge problem and join them. This has many benefits. It will serve as a constant supply of interesting research problems to work on and your research will have greater impact because the team as a whole will work towards consolidating contributions into even bigger ones.
- The tour de force approach. Keeping in mind that even great research is the result of 1% inspiration and 99% perspiration, if you have the determination and single-mindedness to spend many months chipping away at a difficult problem, chances are that you will be rewarded.
Next, it must be appreciated that identifying an area in which to work is just the first step in defining your research aims. Wanting to develop a better algorithm for a certain signal processing problem is not a tangible goal that you can work towards unless you have defined what you mean by better. It is not uncommon for this step to be omitted, with the hope that a new idea will lead to a new algorithm which will be found serendipitously to have some advantage over previous approaches. Yet there is little to recommend this rush-in approach since invariably the small amount of time saved at the beginning is more than lost by the lack of focus and direction during the remainder of the project. Furthermore, few funding agencies would be willing to fund such a cavalier approach, just as few investors would be prepared to invest in a start-up without a business case. It might succeed, but experience suggests it would be a bigger success if time is invested up front to think carefully about what it is you really want to solve. Measure nine times, cut once.
Research aims should be:
- Tangible and measurable. An independent person should be able to come along and judge whether or not you have made significant progress.
- Outcome focused, not output focused. Writing reports and journal papers are outputs, but if no one uses or builds on your work, you have not achieved an outcome.
- Achievable. You must be able to give a credible argument as to why you will be able to achieve your aims in the allocated time frame.
- Hierarchical. A hierarchical structure allows for ambitious aims at the top level with shorter-term goals leading up to them. This is generally seen to be:
- focused and efficient – your work builds on itself and grows into something substantial rather than remaining a diverse collection of less substantial contributions;
- mitigating risk – by having lower level aims which are perceived as achievable then there is less concern that you may not achieve all of your more ambitious aims;
- outcome orientated – focused work on ambitious (and appropriately chosen) aims is perhaps the best way of maximising the potential outcomes and impact of your work.
Supporting the research aims should be statements on the significance and innovation of the proposed research and an explanation of the approach and methodology which will be adopted. All this should be described in the context of previous and current international work in the relevant areas.